BABIP and You: A User’s Guide, Part 3

This is Part 3 of 3. Part 1 can be found here, Part 2 here.

Flood: As I was saying — isn’t it true that some pitchers induce weaker contact? And some hitters hit the ball harder than others? Doesn’t that matter?

PJF: Spend enough time reading about baseball, and you’ll inevitably see someone write “pitchers have little to no control over balls in play.” That’s just not true. It should really say, “pitchers and hitters have less control than you might think, but that doesn’t even out over the course of a single season.” The spread on BABIP is smaller than you might think, particularly for pitchers. And from season to season, even the very best see wild swings in their BABIP, as we saw with Pedro Martinez above.

Now, hitters. Some hitters do maintain a high BABIP for their career. The chart:

David Wright has a very high career batting average on balls he puts in play, .341 for his career and it’s almost always over .300 in a given season. Tony Gwynn flicked enough balls over the infielders’ heads to maintain a high BABIP for his career, and there are a couple of speedsters who beat out enough ground balls to do the same. Some guys can do it.

But again: 96% of hitters have a career BABIP below .330, and almost two-thirds are below .300. So if you see a player with a high BABIP fueling his career year, know that it’s unlikely to continue. Not because he’s lucky, but because very few players maintain that sort of performance over the long haul. It’s like when you see a pitcher with a 1.54 ERA in May or a dog running in circles chasing its tail . . . he’s probably not going to keep that up forever.

Flood: So Daniel Murphy might not hit .330 next season?

PJF: Daniel Murphy hit .320 this season, but with a .345 BABIP. A .345 BABIP is high, higher than 98% of the hitters good enough to get 3,000 plate appearances in their career over the last fifty seasons. So you tell me what’s more likely: Daniel Murphy had some things break his way this season, or Daniel Murphy is better at getting hits on balls in play than 98% of the hitters in baseball over the last 50 years. I don’t know, maybe Murphy is that good – David Wright has done it. It’s possible. But it’s not overwhelmingly likely, and if you were making bets on this, it’d be better to take the under. Murphy is probably more a .280, .290 hitter than anything else.

Flood: What about Bobby Parnell. He’s rocking a .394 BABIP against this season, and .354 for his career. Those are really high marks. Is he really this awful? Because he looks that awful.

PJF: He’s been brutal to watch, and that .354 career mark is the highest among pitchers with 150 innings in the last 50 years. But how many pitchers maintain a .400 BABIP against? No one does. It just doesn’t happen. His BABIP was around .305 in the minors. It’s either going to come down for Parnell, or he really is historically easy to square up. What’s more likely, that he’s historically bad, or that he’s just gotten some bad breaks and needs to make a few adjustments?

Flood: But he actually has been historically bad so far . . .

PJF: Yeah, he has. Maybe he really is one of those relievers who gets hit hard. But a BABIP of .400 is really, really high. It’s going to come down, maybe not much lower than .320 or .310, but it’s going to come down. It’s hard to believe someone with that swing and miss stuff – he’s struck out 49 batters in 38 appearances this season – and someone who doesn’t give up many really, really well struck balls (home runs), is getting hit hard enough the rest of the time where a .350 BABIP against is a realistic expectation.

But he has been absolutely brutal to watch. Let’s not forget that.

Flood: All right, one more current Mets player – what about Jon Niese? He’s giving up a lot of hits on balls in play, more than a hit per inning for his career.

PJF: Jon Niese is an interesting case. His strikeout and walk numbers are very good and getting better, he doesn’t give up many home runs . . . but he gives up a lot of hits on balls in play. His strikeout, walk and home run numbers this season suggest that he’s a front of the rotation pitcher, but his ERA is below average. Because he’s given up a ton of hits. He’s at the 350 inning mark for his career, and among pitchers with 350 innings, last fifty years:

Rk Player BAbip IP G GS ERA+
1 Manny Parra .342 454.1 110 74 81
2 Jonathon Niese .335 366.2 64 63 92
3 Jose Silva .334 427.1 154 53 84
4 Shawn Camp .331 474.1 416 0 100
5 Glendon Rusch .331 1477.1 342 220 88
6 Zach Duke .329 1032.0 175 168 93
7 Ariel Prieto .329 352.1 70 60 97
8 Matt Belisle .328 520.1 288 43 100
9 Scott Service .328 416.1 338 1 92
10 Sean Bergman .328 750.1 196 117 83
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 8/17/2011.

Niese has the second highest BABIP. Now he is a ground ball pitcher, so you’d expect it to be a tic higher than average . . . but that’s still really high. Not quite sustainably so, but we’re in Glendon Rusch territory now. It doesn’t have to come down that far to enter the realm of reasonable career BABIPs. Niese gave up a lot of hits in the minor leagues too, with something around a .321 BABIP. So with Niese, we’re over 900 professional innings giving up more hits than innings pitched. Maybe it is bad luck, poor defenses, whatever.

Flood: Or maybe Niese just gives up a lot of hits.

PJF: Right, or maybe he just gives up a lot of hits. Those pitchers do exist – Glendon Rusch, Jeff Francis, Andy Pettitte – and maybe Niese is just one of them. Which isn’t to say you can’t put a good defense in front of him, and if he gets a few breaks, he might make a couple of All Star games. He’s still a good pitcher. But it’s slowly becoming more and more likely Niese just gives up a lot of hits.

Flood: Anything else?

PJF: Batting average on balls in play really is simple, and it’s a quick way to check for over and under achievers. Use it, you’ll play better fantasy baseball. The league average is around .290, .300, and everyone tends to gather around those numbers. But it’s not a hard and fast rule that everyone comes down to .290 with enough time. If you see someone with a .400 BABIP? That’s probably coming down. With a .230 mark? Going up. But someone with a .270 or .310 mark . . . that might not be going anywhere. It’s not all luck. It’s not all skill, either, but it’s not all luck.

Flood: Anything anything else?

PJF: Nah, that’s it. We’re done here. Part 1 and Part 2 are here, if you missed them, read through this slightly confused and somehow made it to the bottom.

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4 Comments

Filed under Columns, Mets, Words

4 responses to “BABIP and You: A User’s Guide, Part 3

  1. Am I correct in assuming that, where possible, I would want to compare a player’s current-year BABIP with HIS OWN historically established norms rather than with the league norm of .280-.300, in order to determine whether his current peformance is or is not sustainable?

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